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How I Got 4x Better Organized – Tips For Web Designers

As a web designer, you’re often forced to wear many different hats every day. You’re the CEO, creative director, office manager, coffee fetcher and sometimes even janitor. That’s a lot for anyone, and it certainly makes it difficult to find any time for quality creative thinking. Organization in any operation is important, and for our work as web designers it is important, too. [Links checked January/17/2017]

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

The good news? You don’t have to have been born an organizational machine. Let’s look at what being organized means and a few strategies and tips to help you clean up that messy desk and get your work ducks in a nice neat row.

1. Organization 101 Link

What it means to be an organized person or run an organized business is commonly misunderstood. Many people equate being organized with being fussy, which is not the case. Little labeled folders and neatly itemized lists are one way to stay organized, but they are merely tactics. The heart of organization is having a strategy. Being organized is simply a matter of using clearly defined and consistently implemented systems to get things done.

But how do you go about finding and implementing a strategy if you’re starting from square one? It begins with where you want to end up. Think about where you waste the most time or what frustrates you the most on a daily or weekly basis, and start there. Formulate simple clear goals and treat these overarching goals as the finish line in your strategy.

For example, if you have trouble paying all (and I mean every single one) of your bills on time because they are perpetually lost in the mess on your desk, make it a goal to pay every bill before it is due for the entire year. With this broad goal in mind, you can work on cleaning your desk and setting up a routine for paying each of your bills.

2. Building Routines Link

Very disorganized people tend to do things in a scattershot way, jumping frequently between unrelated activities, wasting time and energy with each switch. So, if you are committed to being more organized, the first things you need to analyze are your daily, weekly and monthly routines. What activities do you do every day, week and month? It helps to make a list for each and add to it over the course of the week or even month.

Original image by garyknight5.

Once you have this list, you should start to notice patterns. You can use those patterns to help you plan your time more efficiently. Arrange your activities by location, type or client to minimize the time you take to switch gears (both mentally and physically) between each activity.

Tips for Building Effective Routines Link

  1. Group like tasks
    Don’t stop working to answer each email as it arrives. Instead pick two — and only two — times a day to deal with emails. Schedule all of your meetings together during one part of the day, and don’t stray from this time block. If the block is full on any given day, then schedule the meeting for the following day.
  2. Keep the e-mail inbox clean.
    When a bunch of new e-mails arrives, sort and prioritize them right away. You could have three folders — one for important e-mails (“Important”), one that require some work (“Work”) and one for e-mails that aren’t that important and can be replied later on (“Later”). Try hard to keep the first two clean in the end of every day, and set up reminders or to-do-lists for important tasks. If you get way too many e-mails, you could set up a little system that would delete all unreplied e-mails that are older than 10–14 days and send a notification to those who sent these e-mails, so they know that their e-mail wasn’t read. If the e-mail was important, they will follow up eventually.
  3. Standardize your working hours
    Freelancing web designers are blessed with abundant freedom in the hours they work. But this can be a blessing and a curse. If you work a few hours here and there during the day, you force your brain to switch on and off multiple times a day. Try to work roughly the same schedule each day and all in one block. This creates a clear divide in your head between work and free time, and the divide will help you stay efficient and organized.
  4. Schedule time for administrative tasks
    You’re a designer foremost; but if you’re a freelancer, you are also the office manager. Don’t let those administrative tasks pile up. Schedule time each day or week to take care of bills, filing or cleaning.
  5. Time to think
    Similar to the last point, you are also the CEO, and as such you need to think about the overall goals and strategy of your one-person organization. Make sure to leave time (at least some each month) to analyze how business is going and how you are progressing towards your goals.

Important to remember: routines are not (and should not feel) inflexible. You are always free to change the way you do things. Sometimes you may need to put out fires, and sometimes you just need a change. Listen to your instincts.

3. Systems Link

While being organized is not the same thing as having a mild case of OCD6, creating clear and consistent systems that you can use on a daily basis is important. These systems only become more important the busier you get, serving as an anchor to help you remember everyday items and meet critical deadlines.

The Old-Fashioned Way Link

I’m a big believer in simple solutions, especially for organization. My desk is covered with sticky notes, and I nearly always have a small notebook handy for sudden brainwaves. In addition to creating a written record, the physical act of writing forces you to use another part of your brain, one that ingrains the idea, making you less likely to forget.

Original image by shawncampbell7.

Another great thing about using something like a notebook is that it doesn’t need charging (unlike all of those electronic gadgets in your pocket), and it doesn’t rely on a good connection to the Internet (unlike a Web-based to-do list). If you’re accident-prone, you can even get a field notebook8 (the kind biologists use), which has waterproof pages.

Do you remember life before mobile phones? Do you remember how many phone numbers you had memorized? The human brain is capable of remembering vast quantities of information; but like any muscle, it is only effective when actively used. Give your brain a chance to find the answer before turning to those Web calendars and notifications — it might surprise you!

A note about Web apps: these have become big business. And no wonder; a single-purpose app exists to help you do just about anything. But as with email, people get into the bad habit of being completely unable to move forward without checking, updating and mulling over their app of choice. For teams working together, these apps can be a true life-saver; but often you will also (hopefully) be working with only one or two individuals on each project. Why not simplify and drop the Web app altogether. A well-traveled notebook can do most of what an organizational app can do, without eating a portion of your pay check each month!

If you need a little more structure than just a notebook in your pocket, here are a few “analog” organizational systems to look into:

Digital Control Link

Analog solutions can work wonders if you’re flying solo, but what if you have to collaborate with others on a product? Sometimes there is just no substitute for a good Web app at your fingertips to help you coordinate a project’s different facets. But be sure that you really need a Web app before wasting two days testing different ones, as I’ve recommended several times already. That said, here are a few stand-out apps to help you navigate your next project:

  • Basecamp12
    Mentioning Web-based productivity is impossible without a nod in 37signals’ direction. Basecamp is an amazingly mature and powerful app for coordinating teams.
  • Campaign Monitor13
    To manage email lists and send well-crafted HTML emails, this app is top of class.
  • Blinksale14
    Invoices, plain and simple. It also integrates with Basecamp.

If you’ve decided that a Web app is required for your project, remember that single-purpose apps are generally the way to go. If the app tries to accomplish too much, it will likely only end up frustrating you with features you don’t understand, much less need.

The One That’s With You Link

Photographers have an old adage: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” The point is well made. What item do you carry with you everywhere, without fail? Your mobile phone, of course. And with the likes of the iPhone and Google’s Android platform, your phone is as powerful an organizational tool as your computer.

  1. Use the note-taking app.
    If you have a brainwave, write it down. Replace “notebook” with “phone” in the paragraphs above and you’ve got the idea. You can collect and organize your inspirational images, videos and screenshots online with tools.
  2. Voice memo yourself.
    Most smartphones record voice memos. Voice memos are a quick way to get information down without having to type everything out on a small keyboard. Just remember that they only work if you listen to and act on them later. No smartphone? Just call yourself and leave a message: you’re sure to pick it up later.
  3. Exploit the app eco-system.
    Both the iPhone and Android have healthy eco-systems of app builders who create just about everything, especially productivity tools. Check out what’s available for your phone.

Clearing the Clutter Link

You have a problem: your desk is completely covered. And I mean every square inch. Pens and pencils scattered about, yesterday’s newspaper lying under there somewhere (the sudoku half-finished, of course) and last week’s lunch rotting away quietly in the back corner. Somewhere in there you have work, too. While this surely doesn’t describe you, it illustrates a few points, so it’s a good starting point.

  1. Keep a trash bin next to your desk.
    Having a bin close at hand ensures you will use it. If you can spare the space, add a second one for recycling.
  2. Use your desk for work and work only.
    Just as you shouldn’t work in your bedroom, you shouldn’t read the paper, do the crossword puzzle or eat lunch at your desk either. I know: separating life and work can be hard. But the most successful freelancing designers I know clearly delineate the two and wouldn’t mix them up for anything!
  3. Sort on arrival.
    One way to clear your desk quickly is to sort information as it arrives. Open and sort mail when it arrives each day. Sort those receipts that pile up in your wallet at least once a week. You don’t have to immediately act on these items, but don’t let them pile up around you.
  4. File folders are your friend.
    Yes, they may be a bit dorky and corporate, but file folders are a God-send for staying organized. Give each subject its own folder, and stack the folders neatly in the corner of your desk. You can fill the folders with notes jotted during phone calls, pages from your notebook and designs scrawled on the back on napkins. Just don’t throw them away after using them once. A bit of masking tape allows you to relabel and reuse them until they split apart.
  5. Clean your digital desktop.
    If you don’t already have a system for keeping the files on your computer in order, shame on you. Organization on your computer is paramount in importance. A good way to start: match the folder structure on your computer desktop to the one sitting in the corner of your physical desktop. Use it for all of the digital scraps that accumulate over the course of a project. When you’ve finished the project, move both folders — digital and physical — to an archive. After a year or so, you can trash the archive and only hang on to the deliverables (in case the client ever needs them resent).

Original image by The Wu’s Photo Land15.

Remember, consistency is the key to organization, so get into the habit of clearing things away before leaving your desk at the end of the day.

Ditch the Paper Link

There’s no way around it: paper still exists in the day-to-day running of a business, from receipts and bills to invoices, faxes and letters. Here are a few tips to help you organize all that paper lying around.

  1. Get a document scanner.
    If you’ve got the money, a document scanner (such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap16 — see this in-depth review) can nearly rid you of that fire hazard growing in your filing cabinet. These scanners can capture both sides at once, scan odd-sized items (such as receipts) and do it quickly. After your documents have been scanned, shred them for security. But now that you’ve digitized your records, you need a very good back-up plan to make sure they aren’t wiped out by a faulty hard drive.
  2. File by month.
    If you don’t have the coin to buy a document scanner, I suggest filing general bills and receipts by month in folders and then archiving them by year once you’ve filed your taxes. Invoices and anything else project-related can go in project folders, again to be archived at the end of the fiscal year.
  3. Go paperless.
    If you haven’t gone to the trouble of making all of your bills and statements paperless, shame on you. Stop everything you’re doing and remedy this right now.

Original image by dawnzy5817.

The Long and Winding Road Link

There is no way to soften the truth: people who are well organized are far more likely to succeed in business and life. But now that you know that organization isn’t an innate skill but one that you can learn and improve upon, you have no excuses. Take the time to analyze what you do and how you do it, and then make small deliberate changes. You’ll be amazed at the difference many small changes make!

Further Resources Link

Footnotes Link

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Jeff Gardner is a business nerd. He loves spreadsheets, graphs and helping companies figure out how to perform better. He also enjoys writing, photography and being outside. You can check him out at his blog.

  1. 1

    very useful and neat explain, thanks to once SM :) awesome tips :)

  2. 2

    Useful article, some nice tips in there.
    Is there a possibility to save articles from SM on pdf of printout?

    • 3

      One method I use to save excellent articles such as this is Evernote. Has a nifty browser plugin for clipping webpages.

  3. 4


    October 15, 2010 12:06 am

    Methinks the image of the clock is upside down?!

  4. 7

    Working to fixed hours definitely helps you to get organised. Also force your self to stop wasting time with FaceBook and email etc. It’s just a matter of working with some discipline.

    • 8

      You are damn right mate! There is no bigger time killer on computer like facebook or other medias.

  5. 9

    The tips in here are great, albeit common sense, most of them. However, I’m surprised in an article about being better organized you advise people to use a notebook and pencil rather than apps. I’m not “addicted” to my to-do app but I am better organized for using it. Way better organized. As a designer, I’m a visual thinker and need to see my day, my lists, my sections all in one space rather than flip pages. As soon as there’s a new page in the notebook, whatever’s on the previous page is easily forgotten. I use a small notebook for carrying around, client meetings and ideas, but I rely on that app to remind me of what’s important and I’ve never been more reliable or productive. Plus they’re paperless, as you advise later.

  6. 10

    Great article, Very nice tips

  7. 11

    Great article! I really enjoyed reading it.
    The only thing I criticize is when you wrote: “The human brain is capable of remembering vast quantities of information; but like any muscle, it is only effective when actively used.”

    Dude, the brain is not a muscle, it is an organ!

    By the way, very nice tips!

  8. 12

    I can’t simply thank you enough. I might a bit neat but I’m so unorganized that this tips have come just at the right time. Really thank you!

  9. 13

    OMG, I’m guilty of so many of the things you shouldn’t do. Nice article to inspire me to get back on track. Thanks.

  10. 14

    I think what interests me most is the tip “answer emails only two times a day”. I find that’s nearly impossible. We’re constantly connected and clients are getting more demanding than ever. They want responses quickly or they call in a panic. Blackberrys, iPhones, etc. all keep us connected to our emails, we use multiple monitors, sometimes the email client is always open on one screen. I do find emails adds stress to my day though and if I could restrict myself to checking less often I could see it being very beneficial. It’s got me thinking. Thanks

  11. 15

    Believe it or not, I’ve had a bigger problem with disorganized clients. I think that I’m fairly organized, but it’s disorganized clients that always throw me off track. I love Basecamp, but I’ve been using a free project management web app called Teambox to help my clients get organized.

    Project management is tough, and if your client sucks at it, they are likely to blame it on you. I use Teambox to keep roles obvious and all communication and files in a central place. Enabling my clients to be more organized has greatly helped me maintain my own organization.

    Regardless, organization greatly increases efficiency. Both lead to more money and happy clients. Great article!

  12. 16

    Nice Post! I appreciate the ideas on keeping your desk for work only! Way to often I find my desk becoming home to many projects – non-work related!

  13. 17

    Great article, my only disagreement is on your choice of email provider. I’d suggest MailChimp over Campaign Monitor.

  14. 19

    Great article, and I agree that “single-purpose apps are generally the way to go”. I prefer web based Todo list rather than post its.
    I do use notepads to sketch some draft ideas or wireframe, but for tasks and things to do I use

  15. 20

    I am using the collaborative todo app Idonext everyday ( web & iPhone). It is very simple and keeps me focused and organized. I share files with my clients or assign tasks to my designer. Maybe something for an own Smashing Magazine posting?

  16. 21

    Great. To add – for organizing processes or events over time, the Plan/Do/Check/Act (PDCA) from Lean Thinking is always good, we have arranged our software to help us do things in that order.

  17. 22

    I wish all designer learn these, so we will be able to perform even better mutually.

  18. 23

    Great tips

  19. 24

    Nicolo' Borghi

    October 16, 2010 5:10 am

    We are trying to help web-designers organize their projects with Notes, a web-app we are about to launch.
    We are telling the story of how we are building it, here. Your feedback would be really precious!

  20. 25

    I am a believer of the old fashioned way. Every day, before the start of each morning, I write out a list of things to accomplish and my objective is to finish all the listed tasks. The more ticks, the better.

    Great article!

  21. 26

    You’re a life saver, this article really inspired me to get more organized! Thanks!

  22. 27

    Sherif Mohsen

    October 16, 2010 4:45 am

    I’d Prefer to use Ms Outlook for all my daily appointments , It’s EPIC !

  23. 28

    That’s the great thing about also knowing how to code as a designer.. I’ve been using the same system I custom coded to manage clients for over 3 years now. Allows clients to order on my site, sets their acct up, they fill out a form based on what they order (site or logo design), tells them the current backorder delay, and I use the system to receive comments/feedback/post drafts/post final project files.

    Dealt with nearly 1300 clients this way so far and it has worked great. Anything not custom towards the way you work, like basecamp etc., can never be as ideal as something you can have personally customized to your own likings. It’s just another reason to broaden your horizons and learn php/mysql/js (or equivalent technologies).

    My 2 cents!

  24. 29

    thanks , very useful post , i will keep the headlines to focus on them

  25. 30

    Jon Ivee Hernandez

    October 17, 2010 11:04 pm

    Nice topic about organization.

  26. 31

    very useful post thanx for it

  27. 32

    very useful article. I will definitelly use some of this tips.
    BTW the image with clock: what is the font used for word ” ….MAGNETIC…” it looks cool.

  28. 33

    Thanks for the article. I really need to work on the clutter I always seem to develop around my desk at home and at the office. I do a massive organization every couple months, but this might just be the push I need to really get and stay organized.

  29. 34

    Mayur aka Neo

    October 18, 2010 9:08 am

    Nice. Neat & Clean article. Very useful. Like it!!

  30. 35

    Spencer Goldade

    October 18, 2010 11:17 am

    I use Things for Mac, iPhone and iPad, syncing them all up, and it saves me in so many ways, from an organization standpoint.

    I make a point of cleaning and organizing my desk area, both at work and at home in my freelance space, every two weeks or so.

  31. 36

    Greetings fellow web designers. There are a two things I love to use for organization:
    One thing that really helps me out is my Netvibes dashboard. I have it set as my home page and can instantly view email, weather, news, twitter accounts, blogs, etc. It cuts down on web surfing and allows me to instantly view everything on a moments notice.

    For task managment, I’m using BaseCamp right now but have also used Pivotal Tracker in the past and really like the simplicity of it. I’ve seen some great stuff from Freshbooks too recently. I want to give that a whirl soon.

  32. 37

    “you could set up a little system that would delete all unreplied e-mails that are older than 10–14 days and send a notification to those who sent these e-mails, so they know that their e-mail wasn’t read. If the e-mail was important, they will follow up eventually.”

    Anyone that ever did that to me would lose my business forever. Whilst you’d hope anything important was addressed promptly, anything that slips through the cracks gets a big fat notification that their business isn’t even worth you reading about.

    They won’t be coming back.

  33. 38

    Some great tips here which should be applicable to all, not just web devs. Organisation is the key to a productive work day! Just ask Michael Hansen of DubLi!

  34. 39

    Chad R. Smith

    October 19, 2010 5:08 am

    This article is spot on! It really does hit to the heart of why developers jobs are not as easy especially if you are on your own. I looked at it from a programming stand point and looked at how much time I wasted implementing API (Application Programming Interface)’s. It’s what made me take a pro-active role and create The Easy API – – so I could program faster and save an enormous amount of time. When I used tools like Toggl and tracked the time I spent on client’s work implementing some API that didn’t exist I got sick looking at the time spent. Especially when it was a flat rate site and not hourly. The ones that were hourly would get annoyed when they wanted something like a zip code radius filter put on their stores and since there’s no API for that I had to build that functionality. That lead me to create an API for it so I could use for my own clients, then my friends asked me to open it up so they could use it too. One thing lead to another and The Easy API was born. I really like this article because it helps everyone involved in the development cycle. If you are a customer you want the best site in the world, but you should also consider what we have to deal with daily. Speaking of … it’s about that time to get started.

  35. 40

    You’re so true. Being organized is an every-day-job. I’m perfectly organized at work – not because I have to, but because chaos drives me crazy. But at home, doing similar stuff not for money but for fun, I have to admit I’m a little bit chaotic. Well, rather.

  36. 41

    “Try to work roughly the same schedule each day and all in one block. ”

    Horrible advice for some people. Its physically and mentally unhealthy to spend so much time in front of the monitor, not moving any part of your body except your fingers. You have to take breaks. Especially if you have health issues like poor circulation. I feel the Spanish model of the siesta leads to a happier, healthier lifestyle. I realize this is unattainable for the ones of us in the USA who have a full time day job, like myself, but I need to speak up. After all we are not machines, the computers are. I personally do better work when I’m not in agony.

    Other than that, great article.

  37. 42

    Thanks for this article. Blinksale is definitely the premier invoicing application and if you’d like to get set up, I’d love to help.

    Feel free to drop me a note at patrick at blinksale dot com.

    Have a great weekend!


  38. 43

    Thanks for this article. It is to the point and makes everything look attainable even to the organisationally challenged among us. Good job, Jeff!

  39. 44

    Great post.
    Fully agree on the ditching the paper part.
    Regarding project mode with multiple customer companies, the best web-based software we’ve found is GroupCamp Project.

    James Faban.

  40. 45

    Spencer Kelly

    April 24, 2013 5:52 pm

    I agree with the Basecamp tip but I think as a long-time Basecamp user it lacks a little bit as a task scheduling tool.
    As a team manager I user the Basecamp addon Workstack to give me a team overview calendar that makes my weekly / daily scheduling a lot easier.


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